Editor's note: This is the second installment in ThisWeek's five-part "Evolution of New Albany" series.
New Albany, which was ranked as one of the 50 best U.S. cities to live in by USA Today in 2020, has cultivated a thriving business community over the past few decades largely due to coordinated and meticulous strategic planning.
The city, which didn't have a chamber of commerce until 1997, has grown from a rural community to become a hub for industrial and retail business in central Ohio over the past 30 years and is expected to continue growing with massive investments coming from Intel and Amgen.
But it all started from humble roots.
Not much more than a mill not long ago
Founded in 1837, New Albany is in the center of Plain Township – a small rural farming community up through the middle of the 20th century, according to Dennis Keesee, president of the New Albany-Plain Township Historical Society.
That began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, he said, when new residents began to trickle into the area from such neighboring municipalities as Bexley and Northland. New housing developments, such as the Cedar Brook neighborhood, began to take shape.
“Prior to that, the only reason why you would go to New Albany was to go to the New Albany Mill to get your supplies for your farm,” Keesee said. “There really wasn’t a whole lot of business.”
The New Albany Mill, which produced feed for livestock throughout its lifetime from its founding in the 1890s until it closed in the 2010s, was among the few prominent businesses in the city when these new residents started coming to the area, Keesee said. The mill was at 97 E. Dublin-Granville Road, now the site of a BrewDog brewery location that opened in August 2021.
Among the sparse but popular businesses in town at the time were the Dairy Cream ice cream shop and the Morris Cardinal Supermarket, which, Keesee said, were both on East Dublin-Granville Road and opened in the 1960s before closing in the '90s. There also was Keesee’s pizza shop, Eagles Pizza, at 2 N. High St., which opened in 1971 and is still in business. Eventually, a small BP gas station arrived.
But the catalyst for an explosion of commercial investment in New Albany began with Les Wexner, the founder and chairman emeritus of L Brands, after he and real-estate developer Jack Kessler created a vision for an upscale community taking root.
The two founded the New Albany Co. in 1987 to engineer this vision.
“When Les Wexner and longtime friend Jack Kessler founded the New Albany Co. 35-plus years ago, their initial goal of building a residential development evolved into a much larger vision that set the stage for New Albany to eventually become an economic driver for the state of Ohio,” said Bill Ebbing, president and CEO of the New Albany Co. “New Albany’s success can be attributed to a very well-thought-out master plan developed by Wexner and Kessler in collaboration with a team of renowned architects and land planners.”
In the years following its founding, the New Albany Co. began acquiring land and building housing and property, Keesee said. The New Albany Country Club at 1 Club Lane, which was developed by the New Albany Co. and was opened in 1992, served as a focal point in the lives of the city’s new residents.
“That was when everything changed,” Keesee said. “(And) the country club was the key to the whole plan.
“People moved to the country, joined the country club, golfed and lived in the country.”
The New Albany Co. developed both the New Albany Country Club and the residential aspect known as the New Albany Country Club Communities, which has 1,300 homes today.
“The opening of the New Albany Country Club early on in the development of the New Albany Country Club Communities demonstrated that we were very serious about planning and quality,” Kessler said. “With leading architects, golf-course designers and land planners as part of our team, the clubhouse, bath and tennis facility and 27-hole golf course was unlike anything in central Ohio at the time.
“New Albany Country Club continues to evolve to this day and remains an important hub of activity and a gathering place for residents of all ages.”
The centerpiece of the New Albany Co.’s master plan that transformed the city into the hub it is today for private investment and business development culminated with the creation of the New Albany International Business Park, Ebbing said.
Opening in 1998, the sprawling park that traverses the city’s streets and parcels was “designed to attract corporate headquarters, R&D facilities, clean manufacturing and distribution operations, and health care, biopharmaceutical and technology facilities," he said.
The business park’s creation and development were made possible through extensive strategic planning between the New Albany Co. and multiple city stakeholders who had collaborated through a joint economic committee, according to Jennifer Chrysler, the city's director of community development.
“There was definitely a very collaborative spirit between the city, the schools, the New Albany Co., Plain Township and all of the public entities that really came together to say, ‘How is it we’re going to build this business park, and what do we think is important to us?’" she said. “It goes back to that same philosophy now that economic-development organizations preach, which is that ‘prepared communities win.’”
Medical insurance company Aetna, now a subsidiary of the CVS Health Corp., and credit-card company Discover were the first two companies to complete construction at the park in 1998 and 2000, respectively, according to Scott McAfee, chief communications and marketing officer for New Albany.
Booming in industry and retail
New Albany has an estimated 10,825 residents and 3,738 homes, with a median household income of $203,409 and a median home value of $497,800, according to McAfee.
According to July 2021 U.S. Census data, the city was home to 7,724 residents in April 2010. Today the population is about 11,000.
The development of the business park was a major catalyst for this growth, said Cherie Nelson, executive director of the New Albany Chamber of Commerce.
“There were for a long time no major employers,” she said. “It just kind of grew from there.”
The business park's origins started in 1996, when Discover and Aetna committed to building in the park.
“When Discover visited New Albany in the mid-1990s to check out our proposed site, the business park was literally a vision in a cornfield,” Chrysler said. “We asked a local farmer who owned the land not to till that day so there would be less dust for the visit.
“They bought into our vision, as did many others along the way,” she said of Discover and Aetna. “Today, the New Albany International Business Park represents some of the largest commercial entities around the globe, but we are also a tremendous place for entrepreneurs to establish a presence and make their dreams become a reality.”
Today, the business park encompasses more than 6,000 acres, with $8 billion in private investment and provides jobs to more than 20,000 employees, Ebbing said.
'Willing to pay for it': Construction jobs for Intel could top $100,000 a year in pay
Among the companies that have come into the fold at the business park over more than two decades are Abercrombie & Fitch in 2001, American Electric Power in 2008, Bath & Body Works in 2015, Amazon Web Services in 2016, Facebook in 2018 and Google in 2019.
Bob Evans Farms moved its headquarters to New Albany in 2013, and Red Roof Inn's headquarters arrived in 2018.
Part of the city’s master plan also saw the development of the city’s Village Center.
Developers of the Village Center placed an emphasis on walkability and pedestrian orientation during its development. The result is a dynamic community center encompassing several blocks that is pedestrian-friendly while also interlaced with housing and local merchants in the Village Center. Among them in the vicinity along Main Street are Truluck, Freshii, PetPeople, Hudson 29, Johnson’s Ice Cream, SES Performance, the Nail Bar and Fox in the Snow.
The Market Street side includes Mellow Mushroom and Hayley Gallery. Others in Market Square include Learning Express, Pure Barre, Rusty Bucket, Starbucks, Whit’s Frozen Custard and Elliott Cooper.
“It is fair to say that the park has produced hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues for New Albany and our school partners,” McAfee said. “Many of these business partners also give back to the community in other ways as a result of their presence here.”
Founded in 1996 and opened in 1997, the New Albany Chamber of Commerce – now referred to as the New Albany Chamber – has become one of central Ohio’s largest chambers and consists of more than 400 members, Nelson said, including Facebook parent company Meta, Mount Carmel Health System and Raising Cane’s.
"Members range from sole proprietorships to corporations, with more than 2,500 employees, and represent more than 30 industry categories,” she said. “Partners from international corporations, large and small businesses, the local government and educational institutions are united in making New Albany a world-class community.”
Its membership also includes Axium Plastics, which is in the business park at 9005 Smith's Mill Road. The company produces plastic components for personal care, health and beauty, and food and beverage products.
Axium was started in Toronto in 2010 before setting its sights on Columbus, according to Axium CEO Paul Judge.
The company expanded into the area in 2011, settling in New Albany, he said. Axium committed to 65 full-time employees with a 100,000-square-foot facility when it began its central Ohio operations, Judge said.
By the end of June, he said, Axium will have more than 1.1 million square feet of manufacturing space and more than 1,100 full-time employees in New Albany, which now serves as the company’s headquarters.
“Needless to say, (moving here) worked out really well and beyond our imagination,” he said.
Axium has 18 locations across the U.S., Canada and Mexico and a total company footprint of more than 3.5 million square feet of manufacturing space.
“None of them have grown as aggressively as our Columbus location,” Judge said.
Judge attested to the “diversity of the labor pool” and “loyalty of the employees” in central Ohio as being among the chief factors that spurred the company’s expansion and success in New Albany.
Betting its chips on Intel and the future
Several massive commercial projects are on the horizon in New Albany.
The city made national headlines and received acknowledgement from President Joe Biden in January after it was announced that semiconductor giant Intel is planning a $20 billion production facility in New Albany that will employ 3,000 workers when it opens in 2025.
According to McAfee, Intel’s investment will swell private investment in New Albany to more than $26 billion and expand the size of New Albany’s full-time workforce to more than 22,000 employees.
New Albany has an annexation agreement in place with Jersey Township for 3,190 acres, about 1,000 acres of which will serve as the site of the facility and will be incorporated as an expansion of the business park. As of March 29, 1,689 acres are going through the annexation process.
McAfee said Intel’s facility is expected to be completed by 2025.
“I don’t think anybody could have seen this coming,” Keesee said. “It’s mind-boggling how much the town has grown.”
McAfee said having the commercial generally clustered in one area of town allowed the city to develop residential in a smart way, limiting multifamily developments.
“The great thing about commercial is it does two things: It brings in revenues because the biggest revenue source for cities is income-tax revenue. And No. 2, the land that is being used cannot be residentially used,” McAfee said. “I think we benefited from having a blank slate to start with.”
ThisWeek reporter Gary Seman Jr. contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared on ThisWeek: New Albany, now a hub of development, once had little more than a mill